Skip to main content

There's a name for that...

Edit: I forgot the Minsky! See below. 

First of all, the word you're thinking of is "aglet." That's the name for the plastic or metal sheath at the end of shoelaces, cords, or drawstrings. It's from the Latin for needle or pin. Nobody seems to ever know what they're called even though we use them everyday.

And that's what this post is about. Things you know well but didn't know the name for. I see it as an extension of my "dark history of..." series where I've been discussing the hidden past of everyday children's songs. A special area I find fascinating is musical tropes, especially.

So enjoy and feel free to add your own if have one!

My entry point to this topic was stumbling across information about stereotypical riffs--musical phrases--that stand in for national or ethnic backgrounds in the media. "La Marseillaise" is a great example. If you hear the first few notes of the French national anthem it instantly brings to mind...cheese, the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, and mimes. It's a kind of shorthand for the French people themselves. 

"Hoe-down" from the ballet Rodeo by Copeland is another, American version. Most of you simply think of it as the beef ad, probably. It's been covered and pop-culturized and now instantly brings to mind cattle drives, open spaces, and cowboys. It's a shorthand for the American West in musical form. "Hoe-down" itself is actually a mishmash of other songs which Copeland put together. Which seems to be a theme itself, right? That music gets borrowed and sampled and turned into something else so that we lose sight of origin. Modern hip-hop has that same quality. 

How many of you know this riff? 

Sometimes it has a gong, right? It's that stereotypical musical shorthand for something Asian. It's known as "Oriental riff." It originated in the 19th century in the US as "Chinese Polka" and "Aladdin Quick Step" and even gets some attention at the famously cosmopolitan 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago. It gains attention in the early 20th century with jazz and Hollywood and comes to stand for even the Middle East.

"The Streets of Cairo" is another example of this foreign proto-typing. You know it as the "snake charmer song" from when you were a kid.

It owes its history to Chicago in 1893 as well...that would be the Midway dancer known as Little Egypt who belly danced, scandalously, for fair visitors. (The same Little Egypt who Mark Twain was watching when he had a heart attack, by the way.) The French have their own history of the riff dating to 1850 from the Foreign Legion as an Arab/Algerian song they brought back to France. Which brings full circle the "there's a place in France" connection.

That brings us to the "Tarantella Napoletana" which is the tarantella of Naples. Most of you know this riff as the "Italian song" that brings to mind images of cheese covered pizza, organized crime, and pasta.

There are numerous others...sitars of India, Native American war drums, the muezzin calling Muslims to worship, Spanish guitar, bagpipes in the UK, banjo for the American South, German oompah bands, ukulele in Hawaii. Many of you who are Disney fans are well-versed in the powerful way their theme parks use mood music as part of the carefully crafted setting for each land.

To me, it's interesting the way some of these are horrible stereotypes yet completely function as archetypes of a region or place or time. The line between respectful nod and offensiveness is hard to find sometimes. Cowboys and Indians is a famous (infamous?) example. These tropes are true and yet not true at the same time. People in Australia both do and do not play the didgeridoo. My ancestry in Wales are known for their singing...I do not sing at all. Do all New Yorkers love bagels? All Chicagoans love deep dish pizza? Of course the answer is no to both.

Yet there is truth that many, many of my fellow-Chicagoans love to drink. We shed our bootlegging stereotype with difficulty. We love to shorthand for clarity and easy understanding yet it lapses into caricature easily as well. Is stealing cultural iconography wrong? To be tolerated? A good thing even? It's a bit like the debate over where tribal artifacts should be stored...a museum for all to see? Back with the tribe? Gay males have taken some cultural heat lately for doing impressions of black women.

The whole thing is a messy, interesting area. And we're not done...everyday we're creating new tropes. By the way, the word "trope" itself is from the Latin and Greek for "to turn" and "manner or style." A very appropriate double-meaning for cultural riffs that have multiple functions and meanings.

How could I forget the Minsky Pickup? And "Shave and a Haircut?" The former is that 6 note introduction you know for a song and dance number...dadum da dum dum dum. It's from vaudeville. The latter is thought to be from a 1939 humor song, but earlier recordings from 1911 and 1915 and even 1899 use the 7 note famous "door knock" call and response.